When it comes to telling compelling stories, Hermès takes the prize. The house’s perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, is the author of Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent and The Diary of a Nose, and he is a natural storyteller. Perfumes in the Hermessence collection are like pages from his personal journal, some inspired by his travels, others by his native Provence. Epice Marine, introduced earlier this fall, was likewise inspired by Ellena’s adventures, but this time it’s also marked by a collaboration with another artisan.
The fragrance came together as Ellena met and corresponded with chef Olivier Roellinger. Ellena travels the world in search of interesting scents, while Roellinger’s quest is for spices. Back in Brittany, a fog shrouded region along France’s northern shore, he composes spices into complex bouquets. If your idea of a spice blend is a Madras curry mix, then Roellinger’s delicate, harmonious blends will come as a surprise. When I sprinkle his Poudre Sérinissima over a tomato salad, I also want to dust my skin with this ginger and saffron accented powder. Who else could be a better collaborator and muse for a perfumer?
Epice Marine is in equal part a tribute to Brittany and to Roellinger’s spices. It’s a bright, juicy citrus wrapped around a piece of driftwood, an interplay between sparkling, fresh notes and smoky, toasty ones. The initial impression is of a salty lime and cardamom salad; you can smell as well as taste the tart bitterness of tough lime peel, the crisp bite of its pearly flesh and then the lemony shot of cardamom. It’s such a delicious, uplifting start that at first I kept spraying perfume on my skin again and again, as if replaying a favorite phrase of music.
Once the citrus mellows down, the spice and wood core of the perfume–the Epice (spice) part of Epice Marine–takes shape. In a series of interactions, the two creators exchanged ideas and one of the discoveries Ellena made was how different toasted cumin smelled from its raw counterpart. Raw cumin smells sweaty and musky, but when warmed over fire, the spice turns sweet, caramelized and loses its animalic punch. The toasted cumin essence is what gives Epice Marine its subtle savory twist, and in combination with soft cedarwood and earthy vetiver, it smells of hazelnuts.
Like other Hermessence perfumes, Epice Marine is delicate enough not to overdo any aspect, and from citrus to woods to marine notes, it’s elegantly blended and harmonious. In the same vein, if you’ve complained about Hermessences not lingering long enough, you won’t find Epice Marine different. While it doesn’t disappear completely from my skin, its presence is soft and muted. Others perceive it on me as “fresh” and “clean.” Think of it as a light cologne to give you an instant boost.
But Epice Marine won’t be a complete surprise, especially if you’re already familiar with Ellena’s perfumes for Hermès, Frédéric Malle and Cartier. The juicy bitter orange is not unlike Cologne Bigarade. The marine accord interspersed with cardamom makes me think of Un Jardin Après La Mousson. The dry woods and mild spice recall Déclaration. The sum total makes for a completely different effect, but I’m still left longing for Ellena taking a journey someplace new and unexpected.
As Ellena writes in The Diary of a Nose, “I’m quite simply following the trajectory of an artist, someone who seeks and, sometimes, finds.” Even as my own search for spices in a perfume bottle continues, I can’t help but admire Ellena’s precision and attention to quality. That alone is reason enough to smell his new creations.
Hermès Epice Marine includes notes of bergamot, roasted cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, seaweed, whiskey, and smoke. Available at Hermès, as a part of Hermèssence collection. $240/100ml, 3.3oz; also available as part of a gift set (4 0.5 oz perfumes of your choice), $152.
Images by Hermès